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Life has improved for Native American musicians. They have their version of the Grammys, the Native American Music Awards, aka the “Nammys”, which took place last week. This year’s Polaris Prize in Canada was won by Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, seeing off competition from Arcade Fire and Drake.
With mainstream recognition comes respect. When Pharrell Williams was pictured wearing a ceremonial feather headdress on the cover of a glossy magazine this year, the “Happy” hitmaker, who claims Cherokee ancestry, sparked a furore for disrespecting native culture. An apology rapidly followed.
So, yes, life has improved. But it couldn’t have got worse. The forerunners of today’s Native American musicians emerged against a backdrop of entrenched prejudice. With a few notable exceptions, they failed to reach a mass audience. Many have been forgotten: a neglect the new compilation Native North America: Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985 aims to redress.
The 34-song set is the first in a series intended to cover all of North America. It was compiled by Vancouver record collector and DJ Kevin Howes who spent several years trekking around the northern US and Canada in search of obscure recordings made by musicians as much inspired by the Beatles and Hank Williams as tribal drumming.
There are deep-voiced country-soul songs and rambling psychedelic jams. A Lil’wat Nation member helps himself to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. A band called the Chieftones siphon the Shadows’ “Apache” into vibrant garage-rock. It is a fascinating act of rediscovery.
“I call all the musicians that Kevin put on the compilation forgotten legends,” says Willie Thrasher, a singer-songwriter who is one of those “forgotten legends”. “They did so much, they travelled so much, they tried so hard. There’s still some who are travelling and performing to this day.”
Now living in Vancouver Island, where he busks and writes music, Thrasher was a member of pioneering Inuit rock group the Cordells. Born in 1948, he grew up in Canada’s Northwest Territories where his father was a whaler and hunter. At five, Thrasher was taken from his parents and sent to a Catholic boarding school. It was Canadian government policy in those days to force indigenous peoples into mainstream culture by severing children from families and prohibiting native customs. Thrasher spent 10 months of the year away from his parents.
At the school there was a set of drums in the gym room. “I went in and began banging them, just to get away from the noise, the fighting, the supervisors, the nuns and the priests. And I’d think of my dad and mum. I’d go in there and play the drums all day,” he says.
One day, as a teenager, he saw the Beatles on television. “I’d been listening to their songs, ‘All My Loving’ and all that, and I’d seen Ringo. Hey, this guy’s got a set of drums too! I started watching him, how he played it, and I started picking it up.”
He created the Cordells with his guitar-playing brother and some friends. “We formed the first Inuit rock and roll band that ever played the Northwest Territories and became very successful,” he reminisces. “They were really good teenage wild years for us. We kept the Northwest Territories dancing for a while.”
While his white peers used rock to rebel against their elders, Thrasher didn’t want to reject Inuit customs. It was the opposite: rock music was Thrasher’s route back to traditions that had been taken away from him. The rebellion was against the missionaries’ church music.
“The residential schools were made to brainwash us out of our cultures, our way of hunting, our way of speaking, how we lived long ago. My spirit was taken away when I was five and to this day I’ve gone searching for my culture.”
In 1981, commissioned by CBC, he released a solo album Spirit Child that was modestly successful. But he wasn’t able to develop his career further. “You needed a lot of money to record an album and get exposure,” he says.
His personal resources were also stretched. His father died when he was a child and his mother went blind when he was 13. There was a history of “heavy alcoholism” in his family, to which Thrasher for a time fell prey. Now sober, he continues writing songs and is working on a follow-up to his 2009 album Asumatak – The Great Land. “A long time ago it was the hardest journey of our lives but today we know that our voices can be heard,” he says.
Duke Redbird also features on Native North America. One of the compilation’s better-known names, he has had a remarkable career as a poet, painter, journalist, activist and actor. He believes the roots of rock lie in indigenous culture.
“It’s American music. It was an indigenous music that was being sung for 30,000 years in North America. Then the settlers came and brought slaves. The slaves took African rhythms and put them together with North American Indian rhythms and those two created rock and roll.”
Born in 1939 on the Saugeen First Nation reserve in Ontario, Redbird was raised in a residential school run by church missionaries. Their project, as one of his poems puts it, was “to kill the Indian in the child without regret”.
“They thought we were a pagan people and it was their duty to save our souls,” he says. “It was a brutal social engineering experiment, like the similar things that they did in Australia and New Zealand.”
The 1960s folk scene, with its links to the civil rights movement in the US, gave Redbird and his peers the opportunity to “speak our truths”.
He describes the Beatles as a key influence. “They were talking about peace and engaging your neighbour with love, some of the things that John Lennon was singing about. It struck a chord within us as young artists at the time.”
The folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie emerged from Canada’s folk scene, a rare Native American success story. Other prominent musicians with indigenous links included the Band’s guitarist Robbie Robertson, Mohawk on his mother’s side, and Jimi Hendrix, who proudly advertised his Cherokee heritage. Native American rights had prominent non-aboriginal supporters such as Johnny Cash.
But corporate support was lacking. “Radio stations did not believe there was an audience for native singers,” says Redbird.
In 1976 he made an album with the Ojibwa singer-songwriter Shingoose, a track from which appears on Native North America. At the time Shingoose gave a newspaper interview to the Ottawa Journal describing the album as a “first step” towards wider recognition for native musicians, a mainstream-friendly effort that he hoped would sell 30,000 copies in Canada before cracking the US market.
It didn’t. “We probably only sold 300,” says Redbird.
Things have changed. But deeper problems remain. “It [Native American culture] is in the mainstream in certain areas, like art and music, but when it comes to access to real power or money, we are still trying to open those doors,” Redbird says.
He argues that Native Americans have been airbrushed from history. “The Irish would never have got a potato if it wasn’t for native North Americans cultivating it. But do we get any press for that?” he says. “Not a bit! All we are saying is, ‘Hey guys give us some credit!’”
‘Native North America (Vol 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985’ is out on November 25 on Light in the Attic Records
Photographs: WENN; Andy Sheppard/ Getty Images